“I don’t know how you do it”
“It takes a special person.”
“I could never do what you do.”
…are oft-heard phrases when I tell people that I am a nurse in a Pediatric ICU.
I never really know what to say, except to thank the person, and tell them that when you love something enough, you take it as it is, the good and the bad.
And there is bad.
There very, very much is grief.
As a new nurse, struggling to learn procedures, protocols, and how to get things done quickly and correctly, I often drove home in a daze, wondering how I would possibly survive the mental stress coupled with the impossible stress of dying children.
I would cry in the breakroom, in the car on the way home, on my couch with a cup of coffee, trying desperately to learn how to deal with the weight of human sadness.
I would vaguely talk about the terrible accidents, try in vain to explain a broken family member’s facial expression, or recall the sound of desperate, heartbroken crying, all the while realizing that the words were a hollow attempt to convey the tangled mess of emotion that I was trying to sort through.
It’s been 5 years of growing close to children and families and learning how to properly grieve.
Trite as though it may be, I have learned that mourning the death of a patient is much like allowing yourself to be still while a tide washes over you.
Sometimes I’ll come home, sore and worn with a heart that is so heavy I swear I can feel it in my chest, and I cry and cry until all the grief has been poured out of me like a spilled drink.
Other times I will be driving and a song will come on, or I’ll read or hear something that will bring back a memory of a patient so strongly it forces the breath out of me.
I’ve learned to let myself cry in the car over the young mom who was so anxious to be kind to me and see me as a person, not just another nurse, despite her own exhausting fight with cancer. I remember her quiet husband in a camo sweatshirt, worn baseball cap and work boots who helped her on and off the toilet over fifty times the day she had diarrhea, and in a patient, discreet way, helped her change out of her soiled underwear when she didn’t make it in time.
When I think of authentic, selfless, beautiful love, I think of that simple, sweet 23-year-old husband putting faded, dirty underwear in a plastic bag to wash later, kissing the top of his wife’s bald head.
I’ve watched my son learn to do something scary, and let myself grieve the kids hurt in freak accidents, before allowing myself to come back to the reality that my child in this moment is ok.
I’ve taken a moment by a willow tree to remember a little girl with the same name.
Sometimes I hold my swollen, pregnant belly and remember the day I was eight months pregnant with my son, and I fought for a baby all day, who, despite every intervention we could have done, died in his mother’s arms that night. I walked in to help place him in her arms, and a few minutes later, she asked someone to please give her a different nurse. She couldn’t stand looking at me, so full with the life of my child, while she got ready to bury hers.
Every now and then, when I leave my son in the care of someone else, I flashback to a 16-year-old mom clutching her infant in her arms while her tear-streaked, hysterical face was inches from mine as she screamed “I left her for an hour, I never should have left her. I left her for an hour, I thought she was safe. When I left her…she was fine”
I don’t know if it takes a special kind of person, because I am the only person I know how to be. I know that God gave me specific gifts, and that through the wisdom that comes with age and experience, I have learned how to juggle both the beautiful and excruciatingly painful sides of the same job.
I’ve learned that presence trumps words, touch can lessen the pain of the deepest wounds, and prayer has real power to bring peace.
I give myself permission to hold small memorials in my heart for the patients I’ve loved, whenever I need it. To think about them, remember their stories, and be thankful I was able to love them through the work of my hands.
Above all, I’ve learned that our God is a God who also knows pain, who felt sadness and who is the ultimate Comforter. In the moments when I have no words, or prayers, just overflowing, huge feelings that I can’t contain, I sit with them and I sit with Him. In those moments I am not big enough to hold the grief, but He is.